Colleen Petrucci second-guessed her pick of "Miss Saigon" for about the time it took to remind herself that the conservatory students of Pittsburgh Musical Theater were up to the task.
"Miss Saigon" moves the Puccini opera "Madama Butterfly" from Japan to Vietnam and re-scores it to a dramatic pop opera by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, the same team behind "Les Miserables." The tale of doomed romance has an American serviceman leaving behind a Vietnamese bar girl, who has his child and holds out hope for her lover's return. The West End and Broadway shows were famous for the helicopter scene that re-created the evacuation of the last Americans from Saigon.
The PMT cast, ages 13-18, will use a student version of the script that eliminates some of the bluer language and situations, but the story remains intact.
Ms. Petrucci chose "Miss Saigon" as part of a focus for students and faculty to "tell your story" with a deep personal understanding of what it is about, and she was encouraged by the process that had led to successful stagings of "Les Miz" and "West Side Story." The productions also feature the Pittsburgh CAPA Orchestra, and the material had to challenge the musicians as well.
"So I came across 'Miss Saigon,' pondered on it because some of the material is a little edgy, and it's classic material. ... And after we announced it, I thought, oh my gosh, this is so hard, maybe I've made a mistake," said Ms. Petrucci, director of the musical and general manager of PMT's Richard E. Rauh Conservatory.
She was heartened by auditions for the roles and realized the learning opportunity presented by "Miss Saigon" -- her cast had not been schooled about the Vietnam War.
They were asked to bring in their history books, and Ms. Petrucci found anywhere from a half-page to a page and a half devoted to the subject. "And it's just a factual: this is when it happened. ... Then I realized I'm asking them to tell a story on a subject they know nothing about at all."
The students watched videos about the fall of Saigon and the protests at home, and learned how soldiers were fed music that was different from what was popular on the homefront.
As they learned about the war and its effects on the South Vietnamese civilians, "they became increasingly interested in the children," Ms. Petrucci said. The teens of PMT began to discuss not only their characters' decisions, but how anyone in their situations might react.
"I'm blown away by their engagement," Ms. Petrucci said.
The show that ran for almost 10 years and more than 4,000 performances on Broadway is heavy stuff for adults, too, and it continues to stir up passions even today.
A group that believes the show supports Asian stereotypes recently held a protest in Minnesota, asking people not to attend a touring company presentation. The website www.dontbuymiss-saigon.com says, "such a spectacle [represents] a big budget ode to colonialism that romanticizes war and human trafficking." The head of St. Paul's Ordway Theater countered, "It neither romanticizes nor trivializes sex trafficking, which is, by the way, going on in this town and it does not only involve Asian women. It involves girls and women of every race."
During the process of working with PMT's production, Ms. Petrucci has been following the controversy. She said admiringly that her students' focus turned automatically to the plight of the children of war.
"I think any time you are telling a story that causes people to have a conversation and ask questions, that's a wonderful thing," Ms. Petrucci said.
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960.